From Siobhan Brown, Early Childhood Teacher of Wôpanâak culture and language in Massachusetts
The Wôpanâak Language (Wampanoag Language) Reclamation Project started in 1992 with the mission of returning Wôpanâak as the primary means of expression to all Wôpanâak households. It is one of more than three dozen languages classified as belonging to the Algonquian language family and was the first American Indian language to develop and use an alphabetic writing system. However, for more than 100 years, the Wôpanâak language was dormant (unspoken) and in danger of being lost. WLRP collaborates with four Wampanoag tribes – Assonet, Aquinnah, Herring Pond and Mashpee – to preserve and revitalize a language once spoken by tens of thousands in southeastern New England with the goal of welcoming the language home again.
Siobhan Brown (Mashpee Wampanoag) is an Early Childhood teacher in Mukayuhsak Weekuw (The Children’s House), a Wôpanâak culture and language immersion nest. The school is located at the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe Community & Government Center. Vonnie teaches 13 students ages 3 – 6 in their heritage language.
How did you first become involved with WLRP?
Growing up in a Wampanoag household in Boston, we constantly traveled to our mother’s hometown of Mashpee on Cape Cod. While we grew up in our culture, there was not much mention of our language. Eventually, that changed dramatically. In 2005 I took my first language class in Mashpee, a two-day intensive on noun possession. I learned a prayer and how to say things like “my hat” and “your shoe.” A few months later I attended a language immersion camp that took place over a weekend. It was difficult and overwhelming…I left wanting to learn more. Over the next few years, while furthering my career in theater as an actor, teaching artist, playwright and director, I took more classes and became a certified Wôpanâak teacher at the beginner level.
What inspired you to volunteer?
A few years ago, I was feeling uncertain about the future of my career in theater. Whenever faced with a decision on the next step or direction in my life, it has always been my practice to pray for guidance from the Divine, to sit quietly and listen for spiritual inspiration to indicate a direction. What came to me so clearly was, “work with indigenous youth.” This was not the first time that I heard this message, but it was the loudest. Native youth face a higher rate of dropping out of school, drug abuse, and suicide in comparison to their peers. Studies indicate that a large factor in this disparity is a disconnection from heritage culture and language.
Over 400 years ago, the early American colonizers effectively disconnected the Wampanoag people from their language, culture, and spirituality, and imposed their own. At the core of WLRP’s mission and goals is to deepen that spiritual connection, especially for youth, to our heritage.
Where has volunteering led you?
My first step was offering to volunteer for the youth summer camp for one week. There were forty campers and a hard-working staff in the last week of the summer program. I learned so much – not only with my language skills but from all the youth involved in the camp. Later that fall, I was invited to teach at the annual language immersion camp.
A few weeks after immersion camp, I was offered a part-time job as a linguist and future teacher. WLRP was planning to open a charter school for tribal families. I was hired with the expectation to write curriculum and eventually teach the first grade.
How do you incorporate inspiration or a spiritual practice in your day?
I was raised in a spiritual practice that encouraged me to pray each morning. From early childhood until 19 years old I attended Sunday school and my mother taught me that a spiritual focus would be my best guiding resource in life. Prayer has always been a way of life for me, in all the faiths I have explored: listening, thinking, considering, asking, and then listening some more.
Every morning, before opening my eyes, I consider the Divine in a small way and how I can connect to the divine presence on this day. And before entering the classroom, I sit in my car and spiritually prepare for the day: I think of all the students coming into school…I consider all of their good qualities, their strengths, and their smiles. I set an intention for the day for myself: “Today I am going to …” I keep it simple and achievable. And I ask for support and guidance…I breathe quietly for a few minutes. And then I go into the building.
Each day, our students (ages 3-6) say a morning address that affirms their presence in the classroom and in the Wampanoag community. They acknowledge the values that our traditions hold: humility, honesty, compassion, respect, bravery, gratitude. It is over two paragraphs long. We opened in September and by December, they were saying it fluently.
Does your spiritual practice benefit your students?
It is my understanding that we are guided by our thought. Our consciousness is what is moving our actions, moment by moment. My spiritual practice helps me to be patient with myself, my coworkers and my students. It also helps me to move through the historical struggle and disdain and the present-day trauma that affects my family and community. It is my hope that my students feel the effect of being loved, not just by me, but by everyone around them: their families, the school, the tribe. I hope that they know they belong, that who they are is important and holds tremendous value in our world.
What has challenged you?
The biggest challenge for me and our community is facing the history of the loss of Wôpanâak as the primary means of expression by a nation of people. Consider that for a community to stop speaking their first language – their mother tongue – there must be an inner conflict fed by social or institutional disdain, even punishment, resulting in a mental heaviness weighing down on them and preventing expression; it is a weight on the individual and on the community for generations. This seeming force opposed to non-English expression and heritage is at the core of our challenges. However, each utterance in Wôpanâak is a step forward and away from this historical and present day disdain for our heritage language.
In 2014, WLRP submitted an application in hopes of opening a charter school for Wampanoag families. The application was denied as the value and purpose of our language and culture is still unknown and unrecognized by the reviewers.
However, the statistics are clear on the need and benefits to reconnecting a people to its indigenous culture and language, and we are committed to our purpose. We continue to study, develop, teach and most importantly, speak, pray, and sing in our language.
At the end of the day, what makes you feel like you have done something good?
When I see a child doing something on their own that they couldn’t do at the start of the year, like standing in their independence and freedom. When I speak to a child in Wôpanâak and they understand and respond. And when a child teaches me how to be a better teacher, which happens every day.
There is a student in our class who is very energetic and sometimes a challenge to the classroom. In my morning spiritual preparation, I see this child several years from now. Thriving. Growing and learning. Succeeding. Whenever there is a disturbance in the classroom involving this child, I redirect the classroom’s mental focus away from the situation and encourage a different choice of activity.
Recently, during some disturbances this child on their own headed to the traditional medicine basket on the shelf that contains ceremonial items and a copy of the morning address. The child carried out the elements of ceremony and recited the morning address, then sat quietly for a few moments. Every time, it moves me to see this happen in the room. It is as if I am being shown this child’s secure future, performing traditional practices, understanding them and sharing them with others in the community.
What can you share about the value of spiritual resources that would be helpful for others who want to volunteer?
I think we all have the capacity to hear, acknowledge, and exercise our inner resources. Prayer is a heartfelt desire, a plea, sometimes a question, sometimes an affirmation. My suggestion is to do a little self-reflection each day, whether that is prayer, meditation, writing, painting. Do a little each day with the goal of listening for the next step or direction to help others. The act of helping others can highlight our own needs or missed opportunities, so sometimes it can feel overwhelming. Doubt can creep in: how am I going to have the time? What if I run out of money?
Here is what has helped me: It’s my understanding that the source from which I give is the same source from which I am created. This one source is infinite by nature. It is without boundary or limitations like fear or lack of any kind. Therefore I can’t be harmed or diminished by helping others because the source from which I give is infinitely abundant.
Helping others is an exercise of my spiritual capacity and it’s a reflection of the divine Love that created all of us, and this understanding brings a solid foundation to motives of the heart.
As a practical tip, I suggest just writing a short list of causes that connect to your heart, and then research organizations that align with your heart.
One last encouraging word
Helping others comes with a level of humility that keeps the work fruitful for the soul. In a lot of ways, we are conditioned away from this idea or instinct by an expectation of status or compensation. Remember that it is good to be mentally and spiritually prepared for generous and selfless work, giving time and energy for the greater good.
For more information about the Wôpanâak Language (Wampanoag Language) Reclamation Project, please go to the website http://www.wlrp.org/
To contribute to specific ways to help, go to this Donation page: http://www.wlrp.org/ways-to-help.html